Cantaloupe Crisis Reveals FDA’s Lack Of Leadership

As we take pen to paper, there are 28 people dead and one pregnant woman who miscarried through illnesses associated with the listeriosis outbreak that has been linked to Rocky Ford brand cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado.

It is worth reading that line again because the enormity of this outbreak can hardly be overstated.

It is one thing for the industry to have food safety problems that, typically, give people stomachaches. This opens the door for discussion on the cost/benefit ratios of any food safety measures. After all, many people would gladly run the risk of getting an upset stomach in exchange for less expensive food. As a matter of public policy, it is easy to argue that resources should be focused on risks – say auto accidents – more likely to produce fatalities.

But death leaves little room for argument.

From a consumer perspective, the benefit of eating any single food item is small, so the willingness to accept much risk of mortality is very low. From a public policy perspective, the benefits of individual foods are infinitesimal, so the willingness to accept morbidity is non-existent. And from a supply chain/industry perspective, who wants to even touch a supply chain that kills people?

So how do we stop it from happening again?

The temptation in this type of event is to blame the grower or packer. Identify the particular issues that caused this outbreak and then call the producers negligent or mistaken. Fine, but that just leads to attacks on individuals. It is far wiser to look at the environment that drove the decisions.

One driver is government. The FDA will fly in, study Jensen Farms thoroughly, develop a thesis as to what contributed to the problem  – say a lack of precooling on the cantaloupes – then make no policy change at all.

If the expectation is going to be that it is a regulatory apparatus that will ensure safer food, then the FDA will have to become more like the FAA. If there is a plane crash and they identify the cause – a faulty part, poorly trained pilots, pilot exhaustion, etc. – the solution the FAA will either implement or propose is not solely for the airline that crashed. It is for everyone and for all future flights. Everybody has to implement checks of their fuselage cracks on certain model planes; everyone has to start training pilots on what to do if birds fly through the engines, etc.

The shocking thing about the FDA report on Jensen Farms is not anything it found at the facility. It is how little courage of its own convictions the FDA shows. So it gives advice that is not very helpful. For example, in its report on Jensen Farms it wrote about precooling: “After harvest, the cantaloupes were placed in cold storage. The cantaloupes were not precooled to remove field heat before cold storage. Warm fruit with field heat potentially created conditions that would allow the formation of condensation, which is an environment ideal for Listeria monocytogenes growth.”

OK, now what is a farmer or packer supposed to make of this finding? Precooling might make safer cantaloupes. OK, but so might more trapping, fencing, better washing systems, etc. It is not useful because it is neither a requirement nor a recommendation. Obviously, the quality benefits of precooling have not been sufficient to entice this packer to build such facilities. In light of the high cost of such a facility and the short season in which it would be utilized, the packer would be hesitant to build such a facility for food safety reasons knowing that he would be competing against other packers in its region that do not precool and thus could charge less for the melons.

So with the FDA not prepared to seize the reins on food safety, that really leaves it to the other big driver – buyers. The great haunting question of this outbreak is what led Wal-Mart to buy these cantaloupes?  Wal-Mart is widely recognized as one of the premier players in food safety.  It certainly needs large volumes. So why wasn’t Wal-Mart buying from one of the high volume California producers?

We don’t know for sure but the best answer seems to be this: Wal-Mart required a Good Manufacturing Practices audit – which this facility had. After passing that threshold, the buyers had other priorities than trying to find the single best food safety program. Maybe this product, especially on a delivered basis, was cheaper. Or, maybe, the buyers were being true to Wal-Mart’s efforts to sell more locally grown and regional produce.

In any case, the reality is that growers and packers are not able to do everything possible to achieve food safety. If they did, everything would be grown in controlled environments and each cantaloupe would cost $100. So they have to choose what to do and what not to do.

For mainstream operators, the choice of what to spend money on for food safety will be driven either by the government – what is required by law and regulation – or by customers – what is required to make the sale. They can hardly do otherwise. If they spend money on precooling facilities, neither required by the government nor valued by buyers, they will go out of business.

So in a very real sense, when the FDA team is busy investigating a packing plant in Colorado, it is looking in the wrong place for the cause of the outbreak. It needs to investigate procurement policies and its own office back in Washington, D.C.